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An open letter to members of India’s Startup ecosystem

The seed for writing an essay on this topic originated from a smaller version of an essay I wrote last year. However, I was unsatisfied with the content. Over the past few months, I've delved into the "History of Science and Technology," and many of those books evoked strong emotions in me, prompting me to restart this essay. One specific paragraph from the brilliant historian and science writer Steven Johnson inspired me to complete it.

Let’s start this essay with Steven’s paragraph from his brilliant book: “How We Got to Now”: 

I should mention one additional element of the book’s focus: The “we” in this book, and in its title, is largely the “we” of North Americans and Europeans. The story of How Chain and Brazile got to Now would be a different one (He did not even mention India), and every bit as interesting. But European/North American story, while finite in its scope, is nonetheless of wider relevance because certain critical experiences - the rise of the scientific method, Industrialization, innovation of the digital world etc - happened in Europe/North America first and spread across the world

When I read this paragraph and closed my eyes, I realized none of these critical experiences were limited by boundaries. Today, more than 60% of the world's population uses the internet, and agricultural and industrial innovation impacts almost every human. Therefore, if I can understand the reasons why they happened in Europe/America, I can optimize my work so that the next critical experiences will come from India. In this pursuit, I have been reading about the technological history of digital innovation, which spans approximately 160 years - starting from Ada Lovelace writing a proud letter boasting about her intuition that calculating devices would someday become general-purpose computers capable of performing almost every human activity.

I have recently read “The Innovators by Walter Isaacson and used some of the quotes directly from the book because at this stage I trust Walter.   

The 160 years of digital innovation teach us an important lesson - “Creativity is a Collaborative process. Innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses. Every big business idea of the internet was just an improved version already been tried, existed, written, and shared. The success of the most celebrated innovation was not based on the seer geniuses of those individual innovators rather it was the work and shared learning of their ancestors. This means the digital age may seem revolutionary, but it was based on expanding the ideas handed down from previous generations. The Collaboration was not merely among contemporaries, but also between generations. The best innovations were those who understood the trajectory of technological change and took the baton from innovators who preceded them

Take a pause and reread the sentence: “The success of the digital age was possible because there was collaboration among not only contemporaries but also between generations.” Now, tell me, how many of you felt the collaboration between generations because I felt none. We don’t even collaborate among contemporaries, to be honest, because how many of us write and share? I can read 100 books, but will struggle to bridge the gap because I lack the practical experience of scaling or running a large business. However, someone with practical experience can help fill the gap by writing or sharing. Your writing might not help me completely, but I will have a reference to take so the number of mistakes could be minimized.

Here again, we all need to pause and think again: “The best innovations were those who understood the trajectory of technological change and took the baton from innovators who preceded them.” It is a good time to think about what baton you received or if not, what baton you would like to leave for future generations so that the next set of practical experiences will come from India. Because I found no baton when I decided to solve one of the most important problems for our society. I am assuming this is the case for other industries and problems.

The entire Digital Innovation could be summarised in one paragraph. “Steve Jobs built on the world of Alan Kay, who built on Doug Engelbart, who built on J.C.R. Licklider and Vannevar Bush. When Howard Aiken was devising his digital computer at Harvard, he was inspired by a fragment of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine that he found and made his crew members read Ada Lovelance’s Note”: You see that’s the power of writing and sharing because the entire age of Digital innovation that is shaping our world started with a Note by a woman - the power of writing and sharing. 

Every modern large-scale internet business idea that we use on a daily basis - Email, Skype, Video, GUI, Social Media, Excel Sheet, etc. - was demoed by Douglas Engelbart in 1968 through interactive computing. Many of these ideas were tried by our ancestors, and the learnings (successes and failures) were available in the ecosystem for future generations to build upon. Over time, this created a strong network effect.      

I wanted to write a different version of the same open letter to members; however, it was more focused on "why members of India’s Startup ecosystem should be writing/sharing". I believe our ecosystem is super small and it must grow along with diversity. If I can recall, I requested everyone to share at the start of 2023. But I wrote that with a mindset because that’s how I discovered and learned most of the skills and the invisible aspects that helped me shape my thought processes. But as the saying goes: “We attract what we believe and look for”. Finally, I decided to write about an “Open letter” after reading the History of Digital World - Book “The Innovator” by Walter Isaacson”.

Reading this book made me humble, emotional, gave me a sense, hit harder, and made me realize what made an ecosystem flourish, even ture for society. And if I have to summarize that in one line, it would be “It is never about one person or hero inventor, every innovation takes shape as a layer of onion put across by hundreds if not thousands”. Of course, since we humans are not truth seekers and also due to the laziness of historians we only read information available in the public domain and remember and celebrate that one person. Having said that, hero-innovators are important for our society for inspiration, and we can't take their hard work and dedication.

Because every great business idea that we see in the tech space was already available - written, failed, built at a smaller scale, etc. Hence even though we get to read and know about that one person who was/is successful in bringing to the masses or was the public face, we must appreciate all those who kept leaving the baton for the next successor to build and learn from past mistakes. This essentially means most of the visionaries are the by-products of the amazing work left by their failed and tried ancestors. Of course, we don’t want to remember them at the individual level, but that’s what an ecosystem produces at the group level and creates all the differences. If the tech ecosystem is taking over the rest of the industry, because of this collaboration between contemporaries and generations.

At this point, I can write with 100% certainty that none of the hero innovation/innovators would be relevant in the absence of all those who put hundreds of years of combined efforts and made the environment suitable for the hero-innovator. And this is one of the reasons we see so much innovation in the USA ecosystem. The fruit that most of these hero-innovators are harvesting is the work of years and years by their ancestors. And if that is the case, are we all doing the same? If not when are we going to start doing this so our future members of the ecosystem could have the superpower?  

Out of millions of known species in this universe, our species (humans) is at the top of the value chain. Why? This question has been on my mind for a while now. Unlike many other species, such as dogs, who are born, survive, and die without much alteration to their environment or future generations, we humans sacrifice our present convenience for the betterment of future generations. In one of the best history books, “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” Bill Bryson highlights that “Humans are the only species that sacrifice their present for a better future.” For example, my parents sacrificed their comfort and convenience for the better education of me and my brothers. If I am writing all this today, it is because of my parents' sacrifices and millions of others who contributed directly and indirectly. When we worry about climate change today, who are we doing it for? It is for the future generation only.

To be honest, there is absolutely no difference between a dog and us if we are born, survive, and die without making any contribution for the future generation that will help them live a better life. And for our startup ecosystem, we don’t have to make sacrifices at the individual level; we just need to start writing and sharing, so the next "Critical Experiences" will come from India.

Thanks for reading. If you find this interesting, share this with your network. I shall see you all the next week :)


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